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SP12: Latin American Culture

Piedra del Sol in Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico D.F.


This paper covers the culture of the Spanish Colony in the Americas, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and that of post-Independence Latin America up to around 1973.  The two sections, Colonial Culture and Post-Independence Culture, are organized by topics which allow for wide comparative reading across regions, genres and authors (including artists and cinema directors). In the examination you will be asked to answer three questions, at least one from each section.  Over the centuries the area has produced many major poets, which are fundamental to a grasp of the culture and which form an important component of the paper.


Section A: Colonial

  • Urban Cultures

The colonial Americas comprise contested and rewritten spaces, from the interminable Atlantic to the indigenous and European palimpsest of Cuzco. A wide array of texts inhabit and interrogate urban cultures. The Nahuatl-language poetry that flourished during the imperial expansion of the Mexica, with their capital in Tenochtitlan, was later gathered and transcribed in the decades after the city fell to Cortés in 1521. In the early 17th century, Bernardo de Balbuena pens Grandeza mexicana, a Baroque celebration of the colonial capital constructed over the indigenous ruins, highlighting the site’s incorporation into a transatlantic imperial discourse. Meanwhile, in the Peruvian viceroyalty, Mateo Rosas de Oquendo turns a voracious satirical eye on the capital city of Lima.

  • Rebels and Wanderers

Allies become enemies (and allies again), shipwrecks lead to biblical redemptions, and ambitious expeditions turn into acts of rebellion. These critical frictions characterize the early colonial textual traditions of the Americas. In retelling the Naufragios, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca produced a popular and harrowing account of shipwreck and capture that in some ways destabilizes the categories of conquistador and conquistado, of barbarism and civilization. Documents related to the infamous rebellion by Lope de Aguirre provide fascinating perspectives on the internal tensions of exploration and conquest. Narrating the multiple betrayals and murder of his father, Manco Inca Yupanqui, at the hands of the greedy Spanish, Diego de Castro, Titu Cusi Yupanqui provides a singular —and by no means impartial—perspective on the conflicts and competing interests that shaped the early colonial history of Peru. 

Section B: Post-Independence Latin America

  • Modernismo: Darío and others

Spanish American modernismo, which flourished from around 1885 to the beginning of the First World War, saw a radical renewal of writing in Spanish, in poetry and prose, unrivalled since the Golden Age of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Opening up to Western literature and modernity, especially French romanticism and symbolism, Spanish American writing became far more cosmopolitan and, paradoxically, more American and original.  The towering figure is the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío with his seminal collections Prosas profanas and Cantos de vida y esperanza, prose poems and short stories, but there is a bewildering richness of figures, from the Cuban poet, essayist and patriot José Martí and the witty chronicles and poetry of the Mexican Gutiérrez Nájera to the sardonic poems and fascinating novel, Sobremesa, of the Colombian José Asunción Silva.

  • Avant-garde and mid twentieth-century poetry

The emblematic poetry of the Avant garde and mid twentieth century reacted against modernism but built on its conquests. The teeming –isms of the early twentieth century European avant-garde movements were taken up by the Latin Americans and made their own. The Chilean Vicente Huidobro and the Argentinians Oliverio Girondo and Jorge Luis Borges wrote important manifestos and poetry of exciting and challenging novelty and formal experimentation. The Peruvian César Vallejo wrote some very radical and difficult poetry in Trilce, while the slightly later poems of the grand Pablo Neruda, such as Residencia en la tierra, are essential reading.  Both Neruda and Vallejo went on to write politically committed poetry in the context of the Russian and local revolutionary movements and the Spanish Civil War.  The great Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s poetry is best approached in his Libertad bajo palabra.

  • The City and the Countryside (novela de la tierra, gauchesca, costumbrismo, rural Mexico)

The City and the Countryside offers germane clusters of texts which can be studied as separate groupings or comparatively.  The best known text of the gauchesca, the verse narrative spun around the figure of the River Plate gaucho or cowboy is Hernandez’s Martín Fierro (1872, 79). The conflicts of early Argentina and Uruguay echo and dialogue with founding notions from Sarmiento’s Facundo: civilización y barbarie (1845) and echo in the rewritings of Jorge Luis Borges nearly a century later. The 1920s texts by José Eustasio Rivera, Ricardo Güiraldes, Rómulo Gallegos and others often referred to as the novela de la tierra and set in the jungles and plains of South America address the effects of modernization and nation construction on traditional rural life.  Mexican narrative of the 1940s and 50s by Juan Rulfo, José Revueltas, Agustín Yáñez and others combine modernist literary technique with a depiction of traditional rural communities threatened or destroyed by the violence of the Revolution and Cristero Wars and the modernizing campaigns of the State.

  • Narrative and experiments in form (Cortázar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Onetti, etc.)

Narrative and experiments in form covers the extraordinary flowering of narrative innovation, often highly self-conscious, developing from the late 1940s and gaining international recognition for Latin American fiction in the 1960s and beyond. To mention some of the main writers considered:  Juan Carlos Onetti was a pioneer with his La vida breve.  The Argentinian Julio Cortázar was inspired by French surrealism, Keats and Poe to write brilliant short stories and the iconic Rayuela (1963), while his friend, the Mexican Carlos Fuentes’s impressive novels develop rather from the conjunction of Anglo-American modernism and the classic French Nineteenth-century novel.  The Nobel-Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa wrote (and writes) novels of extraordinary narrative fragmentation and complexity on the social and political reality of Peru. Alejo Carpentier, Fuentes and others wrote historical novels of great structural and conceptual complexity.

  • The Short Story (Borges, Cortázar. Quiroga, etc.)

The Short Story has a long and distinguished tradition in Latin America, with local roots in Palma’s Tradiciones from the 1870s and the stories of Darío and chronicles of Gutiérrez Nájera around the turn of the century.  The Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga combined the fantastic of Poe and vivid descriptions of the harsh and dangerous nature of the continent to produce his foundational collections between 1917 and 1926.  The Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges combined the fantastic and detective traditions with acute and disconcerting games with intellectual enigmas and questions of authorhood and language to produce some of the most influential works of Western literature such as Ficciones (1944).  Julio Cortázar drew on his inspiration from 1952 with Bestiario to write a no less fascinating but more existentially based series of collections.  From Lugones and Felisberto Hernández to Arreola and Monterroso, the tradition has great depth and vitality.

  • Articulations of Identity (women’s writing, poesía negrista, narrativa negra, (indigenismo))

Articulations of Identity draws together a range of themes linked by the meditation on identities often defined against or by a dominant other group.  Writing on specifically feminine identity, sexuality and language, in poetry and prose, has a rich history in Latin America.  Through the twentieth century a powerful line of poetry and thought can be drawn between the very different figures of Gabriel Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, Rosario Castellanos and Alejandra Pizarnik.  The poesía negrista of Nicolás Guillén, Palés Matos, Ballagas and others emerged in the 1920s and 30s and explored Afro-Caribbean rhythms, physicality and culture within an anti-colonialist and often humorous discourse.  Indigenista texts, from the late nineteenth century onwards, have articulate questions of voice and agency, mestizaje and structural injustice and violence mainly in Andean and Mexican societies.  Texts would include those of Alcides Arguedas, José María Arguedas, Ciro Alegría, Rosario Castellanos, Asturias and others, but texts studied in Sp5 should not form an important part of any examination answer.

  • Visualizing America (painting, muralism, photography, early film)

This wide-ranging comparative topic explores representational strategies and innovation in the arts, photography and film in relation to portrayals of identity, gender, ethnicity, landscape, history, modernity, collectivity, revolutionary struggles, coloniality and neo-coloniality, urbanism, popular culture, mythology and aesthetic experimentation.  Visual identities may be studied in a variety of cultural contexts and with reference to issues of genre, aesthetics, iconography, body and art historical theory, geography, liberation and equality, identitarian debates and cultural nationalisms, agency and authority, development and practices of dissent, space and temporality.  The figurative, the non-figurative, the documentary and the docu-fictive form part of the evaluation of strategies in relation to consumption, spectatorship, dissemination and perception in art, photography and film. For example, it covers 19th century costumbrismo  and other nation-building and nation-questing or emancipatory visualizations,  and the transgressive symbolism of Modernismo and the fin-de- siècle.  It ranges over aspects of muralism and socially-engaged art in Mexico (Rivera,Orozco,Siqueiros) , Central America and Cuba from the 1920s-1950s and beyond (allowing also for its trans-border impact in USA).  Discusses Surrealism, the Fantastic and other non-realistic or constructed visualities in Cuba, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina from the 30s onwards. It considers the relation of modernism to the Pre-Hispanic and Colonial hybridity with possible connections for example to Torres-García and constructivism; Afro-Cubanía and Wifredo Lam; Roberto Mata and inscapes; Diego Rivera and indigenismo; Xul Solar and Cosmic mythologies.  It aims to reread the contribution by and re-imagining of peripheral subjects to the creative avant-gardes with particular emphasis on women artists (for example from Tarsila do Amaral, Frida Kahlo, Tina Modotti, Léonor Fini to Leonora Carrington and Lygia Clark), indigeneity , Afro-mestizo constituencies and socially marginalized cultural producers. It considers the charting of urbanism, technology and migration through film, photography and art. The paper allows students to interrelate art practices in a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary and historically comparative ways as well as to explore the exciting intermedial experimentation in photomontage, sculpture, painting, graphic illustration, cinematography and photography (including photojournalism) leading up to  post-War Concretismo, abstract expressionism, informalism, Kinetic and abstract-geometric movements in the Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.

The topics allow a detailed engagement with individual authors and texts in a comparative framework.  Some of the topics contain regional themes and diverse genres and groupings of texts.  There are no set texts as such, but major authors and their works are given in the detailed reading lists below. Questions are designed to allow both detailed focus and a wider-ranging approach.

Preparatory reading: 
  • Rolena Adorno, Colonial Latin American Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2011)
  • Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria and Enrique Pupo Walker, eds, The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, especially vol. 2 (1996)
  • Gerald Martin, Journey though the Labyrinth (1989)
  • Carlos Fuentes, La nueva novela hispanoamericana (1969)
  • Efrain Kristal, ed.,  The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel (2005)
  • Philip Swanson, ed., Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction (1990)
  • Adam Sharman, Tradition and Modernity in Spanish American Literature (2006)
Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught through a standard course of 20 lectures and 8 supervisions (6 for Optional Dissertation Students).


The paper is assessed either by a three-hour examination in the Easter Term, or by an Optional Dissertation submitted at the end of the Lent Term.

Please see the specimen paper from Tripos 2018.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Rory O'Bryen (Paper Coordinator)